The story behind The Crown: Mrs Thatcher dispatches task force to win back the Falkland Islands from Argentine invaders

Season 4 of The Crown covers one of the key incidents of the Queen’s reign – the invasion of the Falkland Islands by Argentinian troops and the departure of a task force to recapture them.

By Rhys Lewis Published: 18 November 2020 - 5.20pm
MIrrorpix/Getty

Season 4 of Netflix’s royal drama The Crown covers the 1980s, a decade of personal change for the Queen as her children find their way in the world, and political change as new Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher set about transforming Britain according to her own vision.

The two came together in the Falklands Conflict, a 10-week undeclared war in the South Atlantic between the United Kingdom and Argentina over two British dependent territories in the South Atlantic: the Falkland Islands and its territorial dependency, South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands.

The conflict ended in a British victory which turned the course of Mrs Thatcher’s first term in office: within a year of the end of the fighting, the domestic problems which had marked her first three years at No.10 had been long forgotten and she won a landslide victory in the 1983 General Election.

For the Queen, the conflict had a personal side. Her second son, Prince Andrew, was serving on HMS Invincible as a Sea King helicopter pilot, and after the Queen rejected government advice that he be assigned a desk job to allow him to fight in the South Atlantic, the 22-year-old prince flew a helicopter on multiple missions including Anti-Surface Warfare, Exocet missile decoy flights and casualty evacuation.

The Queen and Prince Philip greet Prince Andrew on his return from the South Atlantic David Levenson/Getty
The Queen and Prince Philip greet Prince Andrew on his return from the South Atlantic

Why did Argentina invade the Falklands?

While Argentina had claimed the islands since its independence from Spain in the early 19th century, and Britain had come close to ceding the islands to Argentina in 1968 in order to facilitate trade deals with South America, sovereignty was still in dispute in the early 1980s, largely fuelled by the islanders’ overwhelming wish to remain under British rule.

The military junta which had ruled Argentina since 1976 was facing a dire economic situation in their country and in a bid to divert attention from the domestic problems, decided to invade the islands they called ‘Las Malvinas’.  

The conflict began in March 1982 when a group of group of civilian scrap metal workers – accompanied by marines posing as civilian scientists - arrived in South Georgia and raised the Argentinian flag. This is portrayed in episode 4 of the fourth season of The Crown, ‘Favourites’, although the timeline has been changed and the incident actually took place two months after Mrs Thatcher’s son Mark had gone missing in the Sahara, not at the same time.

Troops boarding the QE2 at Portsmouth in 1982 Bryn Colton/Getty
British troops board the luxury liner QE2, which had been requisitioned as a troop carrier for the conflict

Despite a fortnight of diplomatic efforts during which time both countries sent warships to the remote archipelago, the row escalated and on April 2 Argentine forces had not only taken South Georgia but also the Falkland Islands themselves.

The junta did not believe Britain would defend the Islands militarily but the next day, the House of Commons convened for a special Saturday session to agree on an armed response to the invasion.

Parliament voted to approve the formation of a task force to be sent to recapture the Islands, a decision announced by Margaret Thatcher that afternoon.

On the same evening, Britain put a resolution to the United Nations Security Council condemning the invaders and demanding their withdrawal, which was passed. Support was also given from the Commonwealth and from the EEC, who quickly imposed economic sanctions on Argentina.

HMS Invincible returns to Portsmouth in September 1982 Getty
Aircraft carrier HMS Invincible returns to Portsmouth in September 1982

There had been no contingency plan for an invasion of the Islands, which had never been considered likely; vessels had to set sail as and when they were ready. Submarines had already been deployed to the South Atlantic, and these were joined over the next six weeks by a total of 127 ships, including two aircraft carriers and the luxury ocean liner the QE2, which had been requisitioned as a troop ship.

The success of the task force’s mission was by no means assured; Argentina had air supremacy thanks to their proximity, and the US Navy considered a British recapture of the Islands to be a “military impossibility”.

Despite this, after air and sea engagements, British commando forces made their own amphibious landings on the Islands on May 21, and the Argentine invaders were forced to surrender on June 14.

The UK task force, which set sail from April 5 onwards, eventually totalled 28,000 troops. Argentine forces numbered around 12,000, mainly conscripts.

The total official loss of life during the conflict was 649 Argentine military personnel, 255 British military personnel, and three Falkland Islanders.

The first major loss of life came on May 2 with the sinking of the Argentine cruiser, General Belgrano, which resulted in the deaths of over 300 crew members. The event has become contentious as the cruiser may have been outside of the UK-imposed 200-mile exclusion zone when sunk.

The conflict’s longest engagement, the Battle of Goose Green, lasted a day and night between May 27 and 28. After a struggle, 500 British troops from 2 Para were ultimately successful despite being outnumbered; 961 Argentine troops were taken prisoner and 47 killed.

The conflict ended on June 20, when Britain recaptured the South Sandwich Islands. The task force started arriving back in Portsmouth from mid-July, and on October 12 a victory parade took place in the City of London. 

Season 4 of The Crown is now available to watch on Netflix.

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